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Clio's Temple

What's in a name?

On this date ninety years ago, V. I. Lenin proclaimed that the former Russian Empire would thenceforth be known as the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."This act incorporated both a renaming and a boast to the world that the new order of totalitarian states was a reality. For purposes of comparison, suppose the Constitutional Convention had, back in 1787, chosen to name our new nation "The United Republican Capitalist States of America." That's the rough equivalent of what Lenin did. Somehow the thought of crowds at the Olympics chanting, "U.S.R.C.A.! U.S.R.C.A.!" just doesn't have much resonance.

When I tell my students that the ancient Hebrews devised the tetragrammaton "YHWH" to express the reality of a deity who was so holy that the very mention of his name was forbidden, it sometimes kindles a light of recognition in their eyes. It's as though they've encountered for the first time the idea that a name may embody something essential about the thing named. I sometimes hammer the point a bit too much, but it's important. Trying to get them to understand the differences between Plato and Aristotle is almost impossible if they believe that a name is just a name.

In any case, we may be thankful that Lenin's linguistic overreach has now passed into history's dustbin. It's difficult enough trying to make sense out of the world. Imagine what it would be like if nations decked themselves out (in terms of self-description) like NASCAR drivers. We all need a certain amount of simplicity in our lives.

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